Beirut of the Margins

Raza Naeem reminds us of the important ethnographic work by Lara Deeb

Beirut of the Margins
“Adeebo, shaero, danishvaro, sukhandaano
Karo hikayat-e-Beirut khoon-e-dil se raqam
Shikast jahal ko ho gi shaoor jeete ga
Kare ga jahal kahan tak sar shaoor qalam”

(Writers, poets, intellectuals, connoisseurs
Write the tale of Beirut with the blood of martyrs
Consciousness will win, ignorance will face defeat
Till when will the beheading of consciousness by ignorance repeat)

(Habib Jalib)

Lebanon is a part of the Arab world which is usually trivialized and exoticized in the mainstream Western media as a state crucial to the West – read the United States – in the ‘War on Terror’. Therefore whenever a tragedy occurs in Beirut - like the very latest one which occurred there last week on the night of the 4th of August - the West and its compliant media take notice, only to disappear when other more exotic occurrences offer an opportunity.

Lebanon, which was artificially and opportunistically carved out of Syria by the French colonizers to exert future leverage, is routinely depicted in the Western media as a European outpost of civilization surrounded by savage Arab nations, with the former perpetually at war with the latter to salvage its Christian, European values. Throughout its torturous history whenever Israel attacked and demolished half of Lebanon to achieve its strategic objectives, the Western media applauded the carnage sympathetically as ‘necessary’ to rescue Lebanon’s supposedly pro-Western trajectory. Meanwhile the emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon as a national resistance movement and its subsequent parliamentary success there was ignored or greeted with traditional hostility and contempt. Women in Lebanon – as Lara Deeb acknowledges in her book – are also routinely exoticized as either being too modern and beautiful (referring to posh areas of Beirut) or rigidly fundamentalist (in the case of the Shiite women living in southern Lebanon or the ‘other’ Beirut).

The subject of Lara Deeb’s ethnography are the pious women inhabiting al-Dahiyya (also spelled Dahieh), one of the poorest suburbs of Beirut and one where the Shiites predominate as residents. Lara Deeb uses the well-known sociological construct theorized by Max Weber, the notion of an enchanted modern, to show that in contrast to what Weber observed in the Europe of his time, Shiite women in south Beirut actually become more religious/pious with the rise of modernity. Deeb thus turns her ethnographic lens to the most marginalized of Lebanon’s various sects, the Shiites, as well as the marginalized gender within that denomination, i.e. Shiite women. This is an unlikely enterprise among scholars and academics who, pandering to the market, produce what is demanded: stereotypical images of the country and its inhabitants, chief culprit among them being either the Shiite population or the largest political movement of that sect in the country, Hezbollah. Nevertheless, fear of being branded terrorists or seen as abetting them – and it is the US State Department that categorizes as such – has not prevented Deeb to delve deep into the Shiite periphery of Hezbollah and demolish such ahistorical and decontextualized stereotypes.

What one finds useful in Deeb’s book is a chapter (chapter 2) on the recent history of Lebanon, unlike other specialist case-studies which are more concerned with anthropological matters. This history is useful to recount in a treatise on anthropology because according to Deeb, “all history is suspect. There is no agreement on a Lebanese national history textbook” (p. 68) As such, victors and losers change frequently. Lebanon’s Shiite community was not really visible thanks to the National Pact before independence which turned the country into a sectarian state, divided amongst feudal warlords of different religious persuasions. The Shiites got short shrift in the Pact, which basically rewarded leaders of the Maronite Christians for being clients of the departing French and those of the Sunnis for being clients of Saudi Arabia. Like in most of the Arab world of the 1950s and 1960s, the Shiites were initially drawn into leftist – secular-nationalist or communist – politics because of the attractive ideology promising elevation and equality for the marginalized. With the death-blow to Nasserism in the catastrophic Arab-Israeli war of 1967, disillusioned Shiites turned their attention elsewhere. It was not until the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, that Shiites, armed with a triumphalist ideology and charismatic leaders like Musa al-Sadr and Hasan Nasrallah, began to mobilize in large numbers. The effects of this mobilization are evident and visible in various forms of ‘embodied piety’ (p. 103) in al-Dahiyya whether it is praying in public, or non-handshaking with unrelated males, or veiling. Incidentally, the latter two are the site of constant contestation, whether it is the notion of ijtihad – reinterpreting religion in the light of modern requirements – or skepticism shown by various young protagonists in conversation with Deeb (the dialogue on p. 100 on the real significance of fasting is instructive)

At the funeral of revered religious leader Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah

Pious women in al-Dahiyya are not restricted by a patriarchal order bent on carving separate public spheres for men and women. The Shiite belief system is a modern one, dominated by clerics who support science (p. 28) and even the elevation of learned women to the status of mujtahids (p. 94) In the case of veiling, the world of women in al-Dahiyya expands to perform various roles like community work and their clerics support them. A woman Hajjeh Zehra explained the reason for increased prominence of hijab in al-Dahiyya as a protest against the “objectification of women” (p. 114) Similarly Muslim women in societies as far apart as Egypt and France have chosen to identify with the hijab for religious rather than cultural reasons, especially in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Pious Shiite women are able to do this comfortably because the religious tradition based on rituals is gradually being replaced by an ‘authenticated’ version more grounded in knowledge and understanding (p. 117)

Embodied piety is complemented by discursive piety, which means that pious women place great stock in consulting official sources as well as consistently debating every facet of religion as everyday lived experience, whether it is about the existence of djinns (p. 122) or the occurrences at the Battle of Karbala (p. 123) The best and most important example of visible, authenticated Shiite Islam as practiced daily in al-Dahiyya is Ashura.
Overtime a shift from more traditional Ashura mourning involving mass self-flagellation and minimal presence of pious women has given way to a more disciplined one and greater women’s participation

Overtime a shift from more traditional Ashura mourning involving mass self-flagellation and minimal presence of pious women has given way to a more disciplined one and greater women’s participation. Those Western policy-makers and their willing satraps in Beirut and the rest of the Middle East who seek to understand this organized ritual of protest should read the powerful description of Deeb’s section on “authenticated masira” (p. 137-38) It represents more the history of the Shiite community drenched in the blood of martyrs and a contemporary protest against their unjustified stereotyping than an assembly of would-be terrorists and suicide bombers.

In fact, US policy-makers have had to contend with huge Ashura processions led by the fiery anti-occupation Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during the US occupation of Iraq; they should know better. Likewise the mourning gatherings have also undergone a change with the arrival of modernity, in that while traditional ones involve more emphasis on bringing forth the emotionality of the qari’a and her audience rooted in an Arabic dialect that was sometimes chosen specifically for its ability to sound more ‘lamentable’; the authenticated ones are more sophisticated because lamentation over the mistakes and tragedies of the past bring forth new and relevant lessons for the Shiite condition of the present.

One of these new and relevant lessons is the remarkable transformation of Ashura from a narrative emphasizing mourning to one inspiring revolution (p. 149).

(to be continued)

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979